Students file casually to the two check-outs, staff enter their purchases on touch-screens, fingertips slide over biometric scanners, a photograph of the student's face pop up momentarily in the corner of the screens for visual confirmation... and lunch is served - without any cash changing hands. It's as simple as that.
The award-winning ParentPay service means fewer children carry money to school (parents and teachers can even top up accounts over the web) and children having free meals are no longer easily identified - so bullying and other anti-social behaviour is down. In addition, electronic top-up means no sneaking off to buy goodies in local shops.
Litcham High School, in rural Norfolk, is not unique in using this kind of technology, but the ways in which it connects its management technologies are thoughtful and ambitious. And with a browser-based school management information system at its heart (in this case Pearson Phoenix's e1) Litcham now has distinct advantages for developing and involving teachers, students and, ultimately, parents in management information services (MIS). It's a decision worth looking at in the world of school MIIS systems where one service - Capita's SIMS - has 80 per cent of the market.
Browser access means pupil information can be worked on and shared anywhere there is broadband access. That's attractive for most schools, but particularly so for schools like Litcham where the workforce and students are scattered over a wide geographical area - and it's why Norfolk local authority has opted for the service.
"Having 440 schools means that Norfolk has to manage a huge amount of data; a centralised system just makes our lives a lot easier", says Paul Fisher, assistant director for Norfolk County Council Children's Services. "e1 also gives us a tool to be able to quickly recognise when a school is underperforming and help to address how the local authority can step in and offer better support. In addition e1 not only delivers all the functionality of a mainstream MIS but it also provides solutions to new government initiatives such as Real Time Reporting and at no extra cost."
'The advantage of being able to access the system at home far outweighs any niggles'
Litcham has been on e1 for three years: it has been Norfolk's pilot school. While it has not all been plain sailing and there is still work to be done to develop teacher confidence, deputy head John Mellor who is responsible for the ICT says: "The advantage of being able to access the system at home far outweighs any niggles. As we see it e1, or whichever management system that is in a school, has got to sit in the middle and has got to be the fount of all knowledge.
"We found this with the cashless catering. Overnight, data is automatically pumped out into the A-Z catering system so its always up to date. A child can come on roll today and tomorrow all their data will be on there".
Litcham High is a fairly typical small rural secondary with around 570 pupils, 37 teaching staff and 20 learning support assistants. It started life back in the 1930s as a small village school. A quick tour of the premises shows the kind of incremental add-ons that have resulted from rising rolls over the years. Like so many other schools with similar experiences, the developments bear the evidence of creativity, ingenuity and pragmatism. The storage cupboards and even some toilets have been converted to learning and office space, and the trail ends with the last addition, the science and other spaces created from Litcham becoming a Specialist Science College.
Since gaining high-performing secondary school status (HPSS) in 2006, the school has been designated with second and third specialisms in languages and sport.
What has made this growing "like Topsy" more coherent and effective has been the school's ambition and willingness to confront change. By being vocal about getting the right management system Litcham became Norfolk's pilot school for Pearson's e1 back in 2005.
Before then, only the office and senior management staff used the previous management system. On the first morning of e1's arrival, out of 20 registers, 16 were marked successfully and, of the remaining four, one failed because the teacher didn't hit the submit button. The other three didn't manage to log on because they were using the wrong password. By the same afternoon 19 out of 20 were successful.
John Mellor explains: "We've built on that and now we have a system which allows successful integration with the cashless catering system and the Fronter virtual learning environment [now also owned by Pearson which should unlock more opportunities]. The number of staff that have taken on broadband connections at home so they can access information and work from home is quite surprising. And in all this time the system has only been down once for one morning because of a power outage in the part of the country where the data is stored." Remote hosting of the school's data is recognised as an advantage and, as a back-up in case of the odd power failure, a paper version of essential information is kept in the front office.
Although Litcham is moving towards becoming a paper free environment, there is still some way to go. "Not every family has access to a computer at home so at the moment reports are saved as pdfs and stored within the student record with a paper copy sent home to parents," says John Mellor.
Despite Litcham's success, John Mellor is aware of the challenges remaining, like the adoption of mobile technologies which new government initiatives will support. What is not so visible, however, is the fact that Litcham developed its own managed ICT service before the term became common currency.
You encounter it at the formerly derelict headteacher's house (a listed building that has building restrictions) now converted into a two-storey space that accommodates ICTrooms with more than 40 networked computers, a first-aid post, base for the parent support adviser, and an office for the network manager.
"With a network manager who is contracted from a local IT services firm bringing industry standards to us our network never goes down,' says John Mellor. "And with a managed service the pressure is taken off teachers and allows them to get on with the teaching".
However, all this creativity has limits, and the prospect of Norfolk's plans for Building Schools for the Future, with its insistence on transformation, puts Litcham in the frame for yet more change. The question will be: "How do you equate 'Growing like Topsy' with true educational transformation?" The kinds of benefits that BSF can bring, like all-through schools, have massive implications for rural communities like Litcham and that signals the possibility of yet more change. But one thing is certain: the school information strategy now in place, where each teacher has responsibility for his or her own pupil data, is a bottom line that can support all kinds of change.
With the innovative fingerprint recognition system at work in the school canteen Litcham is already up there at the cutting edge. Only this week prime minister Gordon Brown heaped praise on another ParentPay partner Croydon's e-Pay Cashless Schools Project at the e-Government National Award ceremony at London's Guildhall saying "it's good to see technology providing real efficiency gains at the same time as increasing the effectiveness of services".
As an e1 pilot school Lithcham pays a reduced annual rate of £5,000
Fronter is funded centrally by the county for three years
Litcham High School - A Specialist Science, Language and Sports College, Church Street, Litcham, King's Lynn, Norfolk, PE32 2NS
Phone: 01328 701265